October 8, 2014

At Mayo Recovery College, it is quite common to have a person with a chronic mental health condition sitting in class with a social science student on one side and somebody recently diagnosed with, for example, bipolar disorder, on their other side.

The curriculum for this autumn/winter includes topics such as Let’s Talk About Recovery, Self-Esteem, Stress Management, Motivation for the Journey, Living with Depression and Keep Going – Bounce Back (Resilience).

The primary goal of Ireland’s first recovery college is to empower people with mental health difficulties, their families, friends and the broader community, to improve quality of life and to promote community involvement through the provision of unbiased, co-produced and co-delivered learning and dialogue.

The college recognises the equal importance of professional expertise and lived experience, so each of the modules is co-produced and co-delivered by health professionals and people with personal experience of mental illness. For example, a module on Living with Psychosis might be taught by a psychologist or psychiatrist and a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia who feels they are in recovery.

Mayo Recovery College uses a collaborative approach based on adult education principles as a key tool to influence and empower personal recovery. Originating in the US, this concept is now followed in other countries; there are now seven recovery colleges in the UK.

Partnership project

Mayo Recovery College was set up in 2013 as a partnership project between the HSE, the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) and RehabCare, and is supported by Genio, a non-profit investment company. The college shares a campus in Castlebar with Mayo General Hospital and GMIT, where all the classes take place.

Donal Hoban, the project lead for Mayo Recovery College, explains that the college is very much embedded in the GMIT with classes in motivation and resilience running side by side with lectures in heritage study, engineering and social science.

“Our students are quite mixed. They include people with lived experience, family members, professionals and anybody with an interest in mental health. There is open dialogue around mental health or mental illness themes.

“This is not therapy; it’s something different and socially innovative. We try to use the very best that the clinicians and psychiatry have to offer while also attending very carefully to the powerful narrative of the lived experience.”

Students at the college are furnished with a student card that confers many of the usual student benefits on them but there are no eligibility criteria; anybody who wants to enrol can do so and the college is willing to expand to meet demand.

For some who may have left education early, had a negative experience of education or have very low self-esteem, enrolling can be a huge step but there is no pressure put on them in terms of exams or homework and there is no formal qualification at the end.

“We don’t do waiting lists and refusals. We do ‘you’re very welcome’. It can be very challenging for people to take that first step to enrol.

“We don’t introduce terminology such as assessment or exams. That’s not our business. Our business is recovery; we just happen to be using education as a process and we create pathways for students who might want to continue,” Hoban says.

For the first semester in September 2013, 120 people aged from 18 to 65 enrolled and almost the same number has enrolled this year. The majority of students last year were women but Hoban is delighted to be able to say that there is more of a gender balance this year.

Jutta Kirrkamm, a peer educator at Mayo Recovery College, worked as a social worker in the mental health services in her native Germany before moving to Ireland where she started a family.

After going through a family trauma, in 2003 she had what she now describes as “a complete breakthrough”, but what felt at the time like a breakdown and she ended up in the psychiatric health services.

Peer advocacy

This personal experience led her to get involved as a volunteer with the Irish Advocacy Network, which offers peer advocacy services to people experiencing mental health difficulties. When she saw an advertisement for a peer educator with a new recovery college in Mayo two years ago, she jumped at the opportunity.

She says: “I bring a lot of my personal experience and work life, including 10 years with the Irish Advocacy Network, into class so the course material is not just theoretical or academic.

“Having people with lived experience involved in the delivery of the courses and seminars is so important. We can understand what it feels like if you can’t sleep or eat and are feeling down all the time.

“Having a mental health problem can be a very lonely, isolating place so hearing that somebody has been there and understands what it feels like can help to take you out of that lonely spot and connect with others which is so important in recovery.”

The feedback so far is positive, says Kirrkamm, with students reporting an increase in self-esteem after only a couple of months at Recovery College. People are forming friendships and making plans that a year before they would not even have imagined – going back to work and education have become tangible goals for some.

Hoban stresses that the Mayo College is very much pro-psychiatry and he points out that there are some very good clinicians working in the area of recovery in this country.

It is his hope that recovery education will eventually become a routine part of treatment for mental illness.

“Recovery education can really support and augment the best work of the clinicians. When individuals begin to build a life beyond their illness, when they take control and realise they have a lot of other social roles and are not defined by their illness, this can be very liberating and empowering for them,” he says.

For more information, email mayorecoverycollege@gmail.com

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